Learning to challenge bias from the woman who skied to the South Pole alone

If you don’t find a role model, become one.” This was Anja Blacha’s prevailing message while speaking at TARGET GENDER EQUALITY LIVE, a virtual event organised by the United Nations Global Compact on the sidelines of the Commission of the Status of Women in March 2021. 

31-year-old Anja Blacha, a woman who has scaled the world’s highest mountains and completed a gruelling solo expedition to the South Pole, knows what it’s like when the odds are stacked against you – when your gender defines how the world perceives your wins and your losses. 

When she’s not mountaineering, she’s forging new trails for the next generation as the Vice President of Youth at the Project Management Institute (PMI), where she advocates for the involvement and influence of young people in business and society. 

An uphill climb to equality

While women have made great strides in the corporate world, the challenge still seems insurmountable with experts estimating that it will take another 267 years before we the economic gender gap is closed.

We can’t wait that long, panelists speaking at the event agreed, but we can turn the dial up on change by proactively investing in young people.

“I truly believe that it’s time that we think differently about young people and the contribution that they can make and what we as a society have to gain when we embrace young people,” explains Blacha. 

Through mentorship programmes, internship initiatives and tackling biases head on, Blacha believes that businesses can tap into a rising culture among the youth. A new culture that puts personal growth and development at its core while dismissing the myth that the roles we take up in the corporate world are still defined by gender norms or even job specs. 

Becoming a role model

But while corporates and institutions catch up, Blacha urges that young people should not wait to be shown an example of what could be, but rather be the example themselves:  

“From personal experience, I witnessed how few role models there are. I started in technology with a less than 10 per cent women quota. However, I decided for myself, why should I make myself dependent on role models, and female role models specifically. Instead why don’t I become my own role model and thus perhaps become a role model for others.” 

Blacha spoke alongside inspiring young leaders like Salam Al-Nukta, who founded ChangeMakers in 2016, a start-up in Syria which aims to close the gender gap in STEM; Rebeca Franco de Abreu, a sustainability analyst who works to foster gender equality in the Brazil finance industry; Jerry Azilinon, who works to fight gender inequality in Senegal through raising awareness among young boys and  coaching a soccer football team in his spare time; and Siddharth Amalean from Sri Lanka, the Head of Sustainable Business at MAS Holdings. 

Each of these panelists have faced obstacles in their mission to advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality. The women on the panel noted that role models in their respective fields were hard to come by, forcing them to recognise the need to become the leaders they were searching for. 

‘It starts at a young age’

Franco de Abreu launched her own mentorship pilot programme in at the Brazilian stock exchange, while Al-Nukta, who faced many challenges as a Syrian woman now living in the Netherlands, leads an organisation that fosters entrepreneurship and empowers women who wish to excel in STEM fields.

As for the men on the panel, both Azilinon and Amalean noted the importance of creating holistic, flexible opportunities for women in the workplace because girls have historically been denied exposure to the opportunities in a way that boys have not. They also called out the responsibility of men to lead by example, become allies, and advocate for transformational change.

“It starts at a young age,” says Azilinon. “Girls are not exposed to the same future prospects as boys so their vision and dreams for themselves are often limited.” 

Based in Senegal but born in Benin, Azilinon has a keen understanding of the way gender politics infiltrates the workplace in West Africa. 

“Unfortunately, on the African continent, parents have to choose to ensure the professional future of only one of their children. They often bet on the boy even if he is the least performing in school. This is the start of a long series of injustice.” 

Doyna, one of the movements he is involved in, raises awareness of gender issues and provides victim assistance among many other supportive measures. 

“We want to make the private and public sector comfortable with the role they must play with equality issues. During the 16 days of activism, for example, we associate them with our campaign and encourage them to launch initiatives that work in this direction,” says Azilinon. 

The TARGET GENDER EQUALITY LIVE event was held on 16 March, following on the heels of International Women’s Day, and brought together a plethora of speakers from industry, international organisations and academia. They discussed the pathways we all need to create so that more young people can scale the obstacles still standing in the way of global progress.

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